It’s been several weeks since Casey of Kitchen Play instigated Cookbook Tour to promote An Edible Mosaic, a brand new book by one of our own, Faith Gorsky Safarini. The six of us embarked on this exciting ride, trying to approach the task from various angles. We wrote a review of the book; we cooked one recipe each for an interesting prix fixe meal; we had a Twitter party where we all prepared the same dish, cooking and tweeting at the same time; we promoted Faith and her book on Facebook; and we posted photos on Cookbook Tour board on Pinterest.
Our project is slowly winding down and I wanted to ask Faith a few questions about her culinary adventures in a Middle Eastern kitchen. As an expat, I was curious to learn about her experiences and observations. I hope you will enjoy the interview. Thanks, Faith for allowing me and my readers a glimpse into your life!
1. What types of food were your favorites before you met your Syrian husband? What did you grow up with? What kinds of food did you like to prepare previously?
My mom was a pretty great cook and I grew up eating classic American meals like roast chicken, beef stew, and spaghetti and meatballs. When my husband (Mike) and I met, I was very young and still in law school (and I was in undergrad right before that), so I only had access to small kitchens and minimal ingredients and equipment, and very little time to cook. When I had spare time, I was cooking a few Indian dishes that my friends in undergrad had taught me, along with a few classic American recipes that I had learned from my mom. My cooking really blossomed after marrying.
2. What was your initial response to Syrian food? How adventurous were you?
I was very open to Syrian food, and I always tell myself I will try anything once. Overall, I immediately loved the food, of course with a few exceptions (like Yogurt Soup and Jute Mallow Soup). But even those few dishes that I didn’t enjoy right away have come to grow on me over time.
3. What was the first Middle Eastern dish that warmed your heart?
Fried Eggplant with Garlic and Parsley Dressing, because of the story around it.
My most treasured food memories all revolve around family; because of the deep emotional connection linking the food with the feeling, eating the food always conjures up happiness. This is perhaps my favourite food memory…
A few years ago I was in Zabadani, a rural area north of Damascus in Syria. My husband and I were staying with his family in their country home for a few days, and another family had come to visit. Of course a feast was in order.
My mother-in-law and the other ladies were busy all day making a variety of many different dishes. Out of all the foods served that day, a very simple fried eggplant dish with garlic and parsley dressing was by far my favorite. I had tasted eggplant before, but this was the dish that made me fall in love with it, and it was at that moment when my mother-in-law realized that my husband and I truly were perfect for each other. You see, my hubby hates eggplant in any form and my mother-in-law has always hoped he’d marry someone who loves it!
As I sat there ignoring almost every other dish on the table and gushing about this simple eggplant dish, Sahar sat there beaming. Reliving that memory in my mind every time I eat this dish is what makes it so meaningful for me.
4. What was the first dish that you mastered?
Fried Kibbeh. My mother-in-law loves to tell the story of when she first showed me how to make this dish…she and I were working in the living room at a coffee table as we shaped the kibbeh, relaxed and chatting happily as best we could – remember, she speaks Arabic and I speak English, and although we both know a little of the other’s language, it is oftentimes a challenge, but surprisingly we understand each other more than you might think! She formed one perfect torpedo-shaped kibbeh and after I saw her shape the first one, I joined right in. Of course my kibbeh wasn’t nearly as perfect looking as hers, but I soon improved and she said I was able to make kibbeh after seeing it made only once, which is something no one else that she has taught has been able to do. Here’s how she describes it: “I’ve tried to teach many Arabic women how to make Kibbeh Mekliyeh; it takes several times before they can do it, and some never even master it. Faith saw me make it once and the next time she made it herself. As we say in Arabic, laha nefus ala el ekel (literally meaning, she has breath that is good for food, which means she has a deep passion for cooking).”
It was an incredible feeling that night when we sat down to dinner and my mother-in-law pointed out to the family the kibbeh that I had made.
5. Is there a dish you did not care for no matter how many times you tried it?
Surprisingly, no! The few dishes that I didn’t like at first have now become favorites and are regularly made in my kitchen. I think the only reason I didn’t like them to begin with is because I didn’t grow up eating them…and some dishes come as quite a surprise the first time around! (For example, Jute Mallow Soup, which has a slimy texture and earthy flavor that is brightened with garlic and lemon.)
6. How did the differences in language influence your cooking?
The main influence that the language barrier had was that it necessitated me getting in the kitchen alongside my mother-in-law and watching everything she did. But really, I would have had to do that anyway; as with any old-world cook, she doesn’t write down cooking times, steps, or ingredient measurements. She knows how to do things based on her senses…how much spice to add to meat by looking or tasting, how long to knead dough by its feel.
7. How big a role did love for your husband play in your desire to master Middle Eastern cuisine? (I drew the line at cooking squirrel (and other rodents), but mastered biscuits, chicken and dumplings, fried buttermilk chicken, gumbo, and NC BBQ ribs.)
Wanting to make my hubby happy played a huge role in my desire to master Middle Eastern cooking, especially at first when I wanted to make sure that I’d be able to cook his favorite dishes. He’s quite a picky eater in general, even when it comes to Middle Eastern foods; he often talks about how growing up his mom would make one dish for the entire family and a separate dish just for him because of how picky he was. So, this meant that there wasn’t a huge array of dishes that I had to learn in the beginning to keep him satisfied; however, as time went on my own desire to learn more about the cuisine because of my own love for it took over.
8. Did you teach your MIL some American dishes? (I know how hard my mother resisted.)
Yes, which was great fun! To name just a few, I taught her my favorite chocolate cake (which is my mom’s recipe for Crazy Cake, which also sometimes goes by the name of Wacky Cake), roast chicken with gravy, lasagna, and oatmeal. These are foods that my in-laws have heard about and have wanted to try for years, but didn’t know how to make. My mother-in-law was very willing to try anything I made, and luckily everything was a hit with the whole family.
9. What are some of your husband’s favorite dishes, Middle Eastern and American? Did you manage to make him a meal to equal his mother’s?
Middle Eastern foods: Shawarma, Mujaddara (Lentil and Bulgur Wheat Pilaf with Caramelized Onion), Molokhia (Jute Mallow Soup), Shakreeyeh (Lamb & Yogurt Soup), and of course Hummus and Falafel.
American foods: Spaghetti, tacos, roast chicken, beef pot roast, and battered fish fry.
It’s funny, Mike is so incredibly picky about his food, which was one of the main factors that drove me to learn how to cook his favorites from his mom. Once I started learning all his favorite dishes and eventually mastered them, he starting telling me all the time how he doesn’t have to miss his mom’s cooking because mine is every bit as good. Of course I give his mom the credit it for this – she is the one who taught me, after all!
10. What would be the advice you can give home cooks who would like to get their feet wet with Middle Eastern food?
The best advice I can give is not to be intimidated just because a recipe, ingredient, or cooking method might be unfamiliar. For example, take my chicken shawarma recipe. I marinate chicken in a blend of seasonings and yogurt, and utilize a two-step cooking method that yields incredibly moist, flavorful chicken. I had an American cook tell me she was leery to use yogurt as a marinade for chicken, saying it sounded “weird” to her. (What she really meant was that she had never done it before and so she had no idea what to expect.) She ended up making the dish and not only has it become a favorite for her and her family, but it has also become a regular dinnertime staple. If you keep an open mind, you never know what new favorite you might discover.
I enjoyed being a part of this group. An Edible Mosaic is a gorgeous book filled with flavorful recipes that can instantly transport you into a Middle Eastern souq. I hope you check it out – I know you will love it! Thanks, Faith and Casey! And thanks to my friends and fellow bloggers for such a pleasant company!
Heather of Kitchen Concoctions
Laura of Spiced Life
Jennifer of Savory Simple
Stephanie of 52 Kitchen Adventures
Amanda of Maroc Mama